Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper
), is an organizer for the United Mine Workers
. He arrives in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920 to organize miners against the Stone Mountain Coal Company. His introduction to the town is his witnessing of a mob of miners angry at wage cuts beating up black miners who intended to cross the picket line. He takes up residence at a boarding house run by a coal miner's widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell
), and her 15-year-old son, Danny (Will Oldham
), who is also a miner and a budding Baptist
preacher. The miners are reluctant to bring the imported workers, both black and Italian into their union, a cause not helped by C. E. Lively, a spy for the company within the union, who tries to goad the miners into violence and secretly informs the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency
of the "red" Kenehan's presence.
The next day, two Baldwin–Felts men, Hickey and Griggs, show up in town and take up residence at the Radnor boarding house
. Danny at first refuses to give rooms to Hickey and Griggs, but Kenehan voluntarily moves to the hotel, freeing up a room for the two men and averting trouble for Mrs. Radnor. Hickey and Griggs then start their campaign against the union by forcibly evicting
miners from company-owned houses in town. Mayor Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield
refuse to let them be evicted without eviction writs from Charleston
. Hatfield deputizes all the men in town and tells them to go home and come back with their guns.
The Baldwin–Felts men then turn their attention on the strikers' camp outside town, where the miners and their families are living in tents. At night, the armed strikebreakers fire shots into the camp, injuring some strikers. The next day, they enter the camp to demand that all food and clothing purchased at the company store
be turned over to them, but are thwarted by the arrival of armed hill people
, whose land was taken by the coal company. Expressing disdain for the noise caused by the gunmen's automobile the night before, their presence and sympathy for the miners compels the Baldwin–Felts men to leave empty-handed. The slow arrival of the union's thinly stretched strike funds tests the patience of Danny Radnor and other miners who become disillusioned and turn to violence in spite of Kenehan's warnings. The miners are involved in a night-time shootout with the agents and Sephus is wounded. He is rescued by some hill people but not before he recognizes Lively as the infiltrator.
Lively tries to drive a wedge between Kenehan and the miners by convincing a young widow, Bridey Mae Tolliver, to falsely accuse Kenehan of sexual assault, and he plants a letter which makes Kenehan appear to be the infiltrator, leading the miners to plot to kill Kenehan. Danny overhears Hickey and Griggs talking about the scheme and is discovered and threatened by Hickey. That night, while preaching at the Freewill
church, Danny relates a parable
that convinces the miners that they have been deceived by a false story, taking advantage of the now-inebriated detectives. Lively silently slips out of the back of the church while a miner runs to the camp to stop Few Clothes (Jones) from killing Kenehan. Meanwhile, Sephus has made his way back to town and informed the others of Lively's betrayal, furiously burning down his restaurant. Lively flees town by swimming across the Tug Fork River
Later, while Danny and his friend Hillard Elkins, are stealing coal from the mine, they are confronted by the detectives. Danny hides, while Elkins is tortured for information. He provides five names, and is killed by Griggs anyway. Lively mentions that the men he has named died in the mines years ago, and muses that the death of a young boy will complicate things.
The situation between the Baldwin–Felts men and Chief Hatfield reaches a boiling point with the arrival of reinforcements with orders to carry out the evictions. The mayor tries to negotiate as Kenehan comes running to try to stop the fight. The sudden movement sets off a climactic gunfight
between the exposed mercenaries and the armed townspeople firing from barricades and rooftops. Hatfield shoots two men and survives the battle, but Kenehan is killed and the mayor is shot in the stomach. Griggs is brought down, while Hickey escapes to Elma Radnor's boarding house, where he is shot and killed by Elma Radnor. Seven Baldwin–Felts men and two townspeople are ultimately killed.
In the epilogue, the narrator (revealed to be an elderly Danny recalling those days in "Bloody Mingo"
) recounts that Mayor Testerman succumbed to his wounds and the mayor's wife married Chief Sid Hatfield. But Hatfield was later gunned down in broad daylight on the steps of the McDowell County
Courthouse in Welch
, with Lively stepping up to deliver the coup de grâce
. He recalls the event as the start of the Great Coalfield War
The staff at Variety
magazine lauded the acting in the film, writing, "Matewan
is a heartfelt, straight-ahead tale of labor organizing in the coal mines of West Virginia in 1920 that runs its course like a train coming down the track. Among the memorable characters is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a young union organizer who comes to Matewan to buck the bosses. With his strong face and Harrison Ford
good-looks, Cooper gives the film its heartbeat...Most notable of the black workers is 'Few Clothes' Johnson (James Earl Jones), a burly good-natured man with a powerful presence and a quick smile. Jones' performance practically glows in the dark. Also a standout is Sayles veteran David Strathairn as the sheriff with quiet integrity who puts his life on the line."
Film critic Vincent Canby
lauded the acting and the cinematography in the film and wrote in his review, "There's not a weak performance in the film, but I especially admired the work of Mr. Cooper, Mr. Tighe, Miss McDonnell, Miss Mette, Mr. Gunton, Mr. Strathairn and Mr. Mostel. They may be playing Social-Realist icons, but each manages to make something personal and idiosyncratic out of the material, without destroying the ballad-like style. For the most part, Haskell Wexler's photography doesn't go overboard in finding poetry in the images."
Critic Desson Howe liked the look of the film and wrote, "Cinematographer Haskell Wexler etches the characters in dark charcoal against a misty background. You get the feeling of dirt, sweat and – despite the story's mythic intentions – the grim grey struggle of it all. And Sayles, struggling for authority from Return of the Secaucus 7
through The Brother from Another Planet
, has finally tapped the vein."
called Matewan a "simpleminded yet stirring" film which "offers a bracing alternative to complacent right-wing as well as liberal claptrap. If Sayles’s bite were as lethal as his bark, he might have given this a harder edge and a stronger conclusion." 
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes
reported that 94% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 31 reviews.
The film score features Appalachian music
of the period composed and performed by Mason Daring
, who frequently works on John Sayles
' films. West Virginia bluegrass
singer Hazel Dickens
sings the film's title track, "Fire in the Hole", and appears in the film as a member of the Freewill Baptist Church whose voice is heard leading the congregation in an a cappella
hymn ("What A Friend We Have in Jesus") and also sings over the grave of a fallen union miner, Hillard Elkins, ("Gathering Storm"). Dickens also sings "Hills of Galilee" over the closing credits.
The soundtrack was released on LP
by Columbia. Other performers are John Hammond
, Phil Wiggins (harmonica); Gerry Milnes, Stuart Schulman (fiddle), Jim Costa (mandolin); John Curtis (guitar), Mason Daring (guitar, dobro).
- ^ a b Gerry Molyneaux, "John Sayles, Renaissance Books, 2000 p 155.
- ^ Matewan at the American Film Institute Catalog.
- ^ Lund, Carson. "Blu-ray Review: John Sayles's Matewan on the Criterion Collection". Retrieved 2020-08-09.
- ^ Variety. Staff film review, August 28, 1987. Accessed: January 17, 2008.
- ^ Canby, Vincent. The New York Times, film review, August 28, 1987. Accessed: February 25, 2008.
- ^ Howe, Desson. The Washington Post, film review, October 16, 1987. Accessed: January 17, 2008.
- ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. JonathanRosenbaum.net, film review, September 1, 1987. Accessed: February 18, 2017.
- ^ Matewan at Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed: August 23, 2016.
- ^ IMDb. Filming Locations Section, ibid.
- ^ IMDb, Soundtrack Section, ibid.
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